Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Mental poison

Here in the United States, we just went through another election.  There are still several races left unsettled, but the outcome seems to be that neither side got the drubbing the other side wanted, and we're still going to be stuck on the gridlock-inducing razor's edge for another couple of years at least.

For me the most frustrating part of politics is watching how people form their opinions.  Ever since the repeal of the FCC's Fairness Doctrine back in 1987, media has devolved into a morass of partisan rhetoric.  Long gone are the days of the honorable Walter Cronkite, who was so dedicated to honesty and balance that to this day I don't know what party he himself belonged to.  No longer can we simply turn on the news and expect to hear the news.  Politically-motivated spin, not to mention careful selection (and omission) of certain news items, guarantees that if you get on your favorite media channel, you'll hear only stories that support what you already believed.

Whether or not those beliefs actually are true.

To take one particularly ridiculous example, consider commentator Joe Rogan's claim that "woke schools" are providing litter boxes for elementary school students who "identify as cats."  Rogan later admitted that he lied, and a thorough investigation showed that the story is entirely false -- but not before New Hampshire Republican Senate candidate Don Bolduc used it as a talking point against schools' attempts to honor transgender students' identities.

"I wish I was making this up," Bolduc said, with unintentional irony, to audiences who by and large swallowed the whole story hook, line, and sinker.  (Hearteningly, Bolduc lost his race on Tuesday to Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan, by a ten percent margin.)

The media has gotten to where it controls, rather than just reporting on, political issues.  The whole system has been turned on its head -- with disastrous consequences.

If you think I'm exaggerating, take a look at this study that appeared in the journal Memory last month.  In "Partisan Bias in False Memories for Misinformation About the 2021 U.S. Capitol Riot," researchers Dustin Calvillo, Justin Harris, and Whitney Hawkins of California State University - San Marcos describe something alarming; eighty percent of a group of over 220 volunteers "recalled" at least one false memory about the January 6, 2021 riot.  Further, the false memories Democrats recalled were almost always pro-Democrat, and the false memories Republicans recalled were almost always pro-Republican.

"The main takeaway from this study is that different people can have very different memories of the same event," Calvillo said, in an interview in PsyPost.  "People tend to remember details of events that paint themselves and their social groups in a positive light.  Accuracy of memory is important to learn from previous events.  This partisan bias hinders that learning...  Understanding factors related to false memories of real-world political events is an important step in reducing false beliefs that complicate finding solutions to public policy problems.  If people do not remember an event similarly, consensus on defining the problem becomes difficult."

Achieving consensus, though, doesn't just depend on fighting confirmation bias -- our tendency to accept slim or questionable evidence if it supports what we already believed (a fault we are all prone to, at least to some degree).  It depends critically on fighting deliberately skewed media.  Somehow we have got to get a handle on the forces that have turned public media into a non-stop conduit of partial truths, conscious omissions of the facts, and outright lies.  Until we reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, or something like it, there will be no way to halt the stream of poison that is widening the divide between Right and Left in this country -- and no way to be certain that when you turn on the news, what you're hearing is the truth.


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